Baylor alumnus Jimmy Chiang conducts Vienna Boys’ choir

By Rae Jefferson
Staff Writer

For the next two months, the world famous Vienna Boys’ Choir will tour Japan, stunning audiences as boys ages 10 to 14 perform pieces some adult vocalists could never dream of mastering.

Although the choir has functioned since the 14th century and has featured choristers who went on to become famous composers and musicians, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, this year’s group of choristers is of special importance to the green and gold community.

Baylor alumnus Jimmy Chiang graduated Baylor in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in music, and became conductor of the choir this past fall. He studied piano performance under Krassimira Jordan, artist in residence and professor of piano, during his time at Baylor.

“I knew immediately I was dealing with someone very talented,” Jordan said.

She said Chiang’s talent is a combination of application and natural ability.

“He is a hard worker, but he’s just good,” she said. “He was born that way.”

Chiang said growing up in a musical family encouraged his love and gifting for music. His father was a flutist and the pastor of a Lutheran missionary church in Hong Kong. His mother was a singer and led a children’s choir in which Chiang sang.

“Music is simply my life,” Chiang wrote in an email to the Lariat. “If there is no music, there is simply no Jimmy Chiang.”

Chiang began piano lessons at the age of four and was performing as a soloist and concert pianist with an orchestra by 13.

“I also studied compositions and violoncello on the side,” he wrote. “After going to Baylor, I appeared a lot on stage as a collaborative pianist with many singers and instrumentalists from all different studios, besides playing solo recitals.”

Although Chiang ended up studying piano performance at Baylor, he sought extracurricular lessons in conducting from Stephen Heyde, Mary Franks Thompson professor of orchestral studies and director of orchestral activities.

“Originally, I knew him as a pianist,” Heyde said. “He was a fine pianist and very gifted fellow. He always had this passion to conduct.”

Heyde said Chiang approached him for private conducting lessons.

“He showed early on the makings of a tremendous conductor,” he said. “He’s very, very musical, but he also had great passion for the music and a hunger to do things.”

Heyde said he remembers Chiang used to get groups of music students together and would conduct pieces with them during his free time at Baylor.

After graduation, Chiang traveled to Vienna, Austria with Jordan, where she acquainted him with the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna.

“After graduation, I found my next stop and home – Vienna,” Chiang wrote in the email. “Here, I not only continued my activities as a pianist, but devoted myself a lot in conducting.”

This transition from pianist to conductor is not the most traditional path followed by most instrumentalists, Heyde said.

“Certainly some have do it that way, but I don’t think it’s customary to do it that way,” he said.

Chiang won the prestigious international conducting competition, “Lovro von Matacic,” in Zagreb, Croatia in 2007. He went on to conduct several professional orchestras, work at opera theaters and teach music in both primary and secondary educational settings in Asia, Austria and Germany.

“I have now taken over the position to lead the Vienna Boys’ Choir,” he wrote. “It gives me the chance to also explore the choral world.”

Heyde said the department is not surprised to see Chiang in his new role.

“We’ve very proud of his appointment with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, but he’s had a number of pretty impressive appointments before this,” Heyde said.

Chiang became kapellmeister this past October, and he said the position was unexpected. He said being conductor has affirmed his “musicality and status” in the cultured city of Vienna.

“It was all a surprise to me because I didn’t look for it,” he wrote in the email. “They found me. “I was more into orchestral, or say operatic productions, which are my passion in general, but I am grateful at the same time, as an institution of such name and fame accepts me in such a position, especially as a foreigner gaining an important musical position in Vienna.”

Chiang said the position is accompanied by challenges unlike those found in other conducting positions.
“They are kids,” he wrote. “Yet they are professionals. Not only do I have to be an artist to fulfill the work demand, but also a teacher and a father. I have to bring discipline in rehearsals, bring 25 individuals, who are all intelligent and strong-willed kids, into one choir.”

The greatest reward of conducting the choir is the trust he has built with the boys, Chiang said. Trust is important when working with adults in an orchestra, but it’s even more important when working with kids, he said.

“They are kids, and they are honest,” Chiang wrote. “The quality of the concert relies solely on trust for each other. They need to know they can be on stage without me panicking, and I need to trust them to deliver what we have rehearsed.”

Chiang said the position will give him a greater repertoire of musical styles. The position will also help him learn to work under stressful conditions with adult performers.

“The efficiency one requires to train these untamed boys to meet a high demanding engagement schedule is definitely essential for one to learn to operate some high professional orchestras or artistic institutions,” he wrote.

The choir is split into four separate choirs, with 25 boys in each group. The Austrian education system is split up into trimesters, so the boys are in school for 2 semesters and tour for the third semester, or for about two months.

Chiang had his first performance in Japan with one of the choirs this past Saturday. The boys are expected to perform more than 30 concerts during that time.

“One grows, whether individual or as a group, during a tour, by living together, making music together and relying on each other, especially in a foreign country,” he wrote in the email.

Chiang said the choir is a model of what society should look like, with the individual learning to be aware of the needs of the group.

“There is freedom to sing, but not to sing whenever you want or however you want,” he wrote. “There is sheet music to follow, there is conductor to follow, there are other singers around to harmonize with. Each person has its function and position.”

Working with music has allowed Chiang to learn and teach others about life by observing the functions and structure of music, he said.

“I have definitely become a more mature person,” he wrote. “As I grow in the musical world and gain deeper understanding of musicality, there will be deeper understanding of life, and vice versa.”